Days before my eighteenth birthday, I met her at the ramshackle hole-in-the-wall shop in old Kolkata. The place was merely a rendezvous point sandwiched between the cinema hall that screened cheap song-and-dance capers and the grocery where Mum maintained a running account. Ivanna she called herself. But I strongly doubted her. Auburn hair, crimson headband—she was a foreigner, and foreigners in these parts meant only one thing.
‘Ivanna from Greece. Want some?’
I stuffed her palm with cash I’d stolen from Mum’s purse. She pinched my cheeks as she’d a toddler and fished out some grayish-silver tablets from her batik-printed bag, careful not to be too conspicuous.
Cash was supplanted with tablets.
I went home to the drone. Most times it was a cacophony; only sometimes got denuded to a static. Those were the rare minutes I could count my life without having to deal with my head.
I had lived with that soup bubbling inside the orb balanced over my neck for quite some time, but found it boiling over on Friday last, when thousands of us, students in our jeans and tees, spilled onto the streets, without flags or banners, the air thick with cries of, ‘Enough is Enough’. We had taken the abuse and injustices for far too long. Something had snapped somewhere.
Our peaceful marches rattled the citadels; we stood defiant against sturdy walls of power. We were crushed, we fell, were born again like amoeba, ready to face more water cannons and rubber pellets.
I began to return home to more voices; more drums beating, directing me. Now there was no stopping. I was slipping more and more into my own dark canyon.
Someone suggested the tablets. They eased me into sleep for a few nights. Later on, I dreamt of grey skies that were surrendering to the rumblings within and slashing themselves with a silver blade, pouring out torrents. I dreamt I lived in a saucer which clouds filled several larder-full, me devouring it one moment, filling my canvas with idyllic peasant homes, rustic women working in verdant paddy-fields, and the next instant I was drowning. How I cried for help in the quiet of my room!
The second time Ivanna invited me to her rented place on Sudder Street where tenements were stacked precariously like they were forced upon one another to prove some formulae on gravity or equilibrium, and held together by the roots of wild creepers growing in their crevices. Miscellaneous flags, festoons, cable wires hung over them, but they stood in stoic silence unmindful of the intervention of time.
Just at the bend, she had come to receive me for I didn’t know the way. The skies had opened their wounds again, this time for real, and we were caught in the sudden shower.
We stood without words under the awning of a shop, evaluating each other. She was older by at least a decade; I showed off the thin hairline on my upper lip, brushing it with the tip of my index.
When the clouds were done, spent on an unrepentant afternoon, she led me into her tiny apartment; into what had drawn her to this city; into the details of a mundane job as a store clerk back home that had allowed her to buy this trip.
To return the frankness, I told her about my family, my landscapes, the bustle in my head which no one seemed to hear, before I paid for what’d suffice to shut those voices for the next few days.
I turned to see her waving at her door when I left.
But that was it. There was no third or fourth time. She had disappeared.
The rest of my years at Art College were spent looking for her. Not that my supplies weren’t coming, but I had lost all interest in them. My mind used to dwell on where she might be. All I wanted was—closure.
During this time, the silver lining in my rudderless life were the colours of the rainbow stashed in my satchel that helped bind the voices within, that held me together.
Immediately after college, I left for Europe, living for some years faintly aware that if I ever met Ivanna, I owed her gratitude. I’d easily have been pulled into a bottomless abyss where a racket would be pounding my ears, playing uninterrupted, and opium only blanketing the drone for some time.
Instead, she chose to remain the girl in crimson headband waving to me, framed by a dark-mahogany door. AQ